A Millennial Speaks

As a formerly unengaged Millennial, who was inspired to build Jewish experiences for people like me, I’m writing not simply to offer criticism but also to share insights.

by Rachel Cort

I’m not your typical Jewish professional. I didn’t go to Jewish day school, or Jewish summer camp, or youth group. While I have two Jewish parents, I celebrated Christmas every year with my extended, non-Jewish family until I was twelve. My Jewish education stopped after my Bat Mitzvah. In college, I didn’t seek out Jewish life on campus, dropping in for High Holiday services but largely avoiding the Hillel building. I didn’t visit – or ever even really think about – Israel until I was 25 years old. I didn’t start working full-time as a Jewish professional until I was 27, and this field certainly wasn’t part of my imagined career path as I left college.

What I am is your typical Jewish Millennial. While this makes me an outlier among my professional peers in Jewish communal service, I have been very careful to preserve what I consider my “outsider” Millennial perspective. I believe the key to serving young adults lies in deeply understanding their experiences, habits and needs – and not just by reading the Pew study, which only confirmed what many people working closely with young adults have known for years: the American Jewish community of today is undergoing profound change. Jewish institutions are in decline. Millennials have multiple, overlapping identities and a different approach to Jewish identity than their parents or grandparents.

I’ve been very fortunate to have participated in many programs and initiatives for young Jewish professionals. So it is with great respect, and not a little trepidation, that I write to point out what I view as the biggest unspoken challenge facing Jewish organizations today: the people who are most likely to go into Jewish communal service are those who are the recipients of a rich Jewish education or a series of meaningful Jewish experiences (such as camp, youth group or Hillel – frequently all three). They are outliers, and unrepresentative of the vast majority of American Jews. Such individuals are often unable to mount a meaningful critique of institutional Judaism, or to grasp the substantial gap between their Jewish experiences and others’, or even to realize the extent to which they are outliers. They often start from the assumption that participation in Jewish life or Israel is inherently meaningful; an assumption that many of the Millennials they are attempting to engage with do not share. For many Jewish professionals, meaningful involvement in Jewish life and facility with Jewish ritual is a norm they have grown up with, which is certainly not the case for many who are the target of engagement efforts.

Let me be clear – plenty of people who went to day school or camp don’t become Jewish professionals. Some even drop out of Jewish life, despite the consensus in our field that camp and day school “work.” The people who ultimately become Jewish professionals are the ones that loved their formative experiences in Jewish life so much that they decided to make a career of it. And therein lies the problem: I often feel as if many of my professional peers, especially those charged with engagement work, are trying to replicate their own meaningful Jewish experiences for an audience that does not share their assumptions and norms. Day school, camp and Hillel-type experiences, while working well for a slender segment, will not work (and have not worked) for the vast majority of young Jewish adults.

I believe that many Jewish professionals are simply unable to reform a system of which they are a successful result, a system that personally worked for them to deliver value, meaning and community. And in a time where reform is desperately needed, this is a significant roadblock. Our professional field is more insular, more homogenous and more conservative than the population it purports to serve. The continued and widespread exclusion of women from positions of leadership in institutional Jewish life is a major indicator of this. Anecdotally, I cannot tell you how many times I have felt alienated by or at odds with a room full of my professional peers, who often seem like an extension of the Hillel clubhouse that I so assiduously avoided in college. How can such a professional field be charged with creating new Jewish experiences to meet the profoundly shifting needs of a generation on the brink of maturity and leadership? It may seem that Jewish life in America is in crisis, but such crisis represents an imperative to rethink the systems and institutions that have served (some of) us so well up to this point. I fear that those most likely to go into this field are not yet up to the task.

The Pew Study told us that Millennials feel generally positive about their Jewish identities, which is a good start. Millennials also seek to derive meaning from their personal choices. Thus, Jewish life needs to be able to compete in the marketplace of ideas, which is ever more saturated with different ways of making meaning. Jewish life must continue evolving in order to allow for Millennials to both engage with and express their Jewish identities. And this all means that sometimes, Jewish professionals have to check their institutional baggage at the door to actually adapt a Millennial mindset, not just read about it.

As a formerly unengaged Millennial who was inspired to build Jewish experiences for people like me, I’m writing not simply to offer criticism but also to share insights. I’m writing to turn a series of formative-though-accidental experiences that happened along my “Jewish journey” (as we say in the field) into a program intended to revitalize the field of Jewish communal service. I would also like to note that the future of Jewish life doesn’t belong to professionals alone, but also to inspired and dedicated volunteer leadership. This program has potential applications for volunteer leaders as well.

Over the past two years I have been earning my Master’s in Jewish Professional Studies from the Spertus Institute while also working for an entrepreneurial campus Jewish organization that combines the tenets of design and disruptive innovation with Jewish text, thought, philosophy and ritual. These experiences, along with others, have shaped the thesis I wrote for my Master’s program, which seeks to recommend new competencies for Jewish professionals working with Millennials. Over the next few weeks, I hope to share these competencies (disruptive innovation, design thinking, improvisation and collaborative group work, relationship-based engagement and network theory, traditionally radical Talmud study) with the readers of eJewish Philanthrophy. Right now, I have the good fortune to serve the demographic to which I belong and which I greatly resemble. I realize that those I serve won’t always be Millennials (someday there will be a new generation of Jews to fret over), and that even now there are significant differences between the older members of my generation (now in their late 20s) and the college students with whom I work. These new competencies are intended to allow Jewish professionals to design meaningful experiences for people who look significantly different from them, whatever generation they may be.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, reactions and (inevitable) criticisms.

Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.